Collecting elevation data to understand climate change effects in the Marshall Islands

A satellite image of the rectangular ring of Majuro Atoll in the midst of a blue sea.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that low-lying atolls (ring-shaped islands or island chains made of coral) in the Pacific Ocean are extremely vulnerable to high tide events (“king tides”), storm surge, tsunamis, and sea-level rise. The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) spreads over 29 atolls and has a population of over 50,000 people with homes and communities that may be threatened by these climate change-related events.

A thin strip of land with a straight two-lane road retreats into the distance with ocean on either side.
Average elevation on Majuro Atoll is less than two meters, making the land mass of the island a fragile swath between the ocean and the enclosed lagoon. (Photo: A.Jalandoni/UOG)

Policy makers, planners, and others within RMI are faced with decisions about how to prepare for the future and need scientific data and information about the vulnerability of Pacific Islands to potential climate change impacts like sea-level rise. Topographic and bathymetric data are needed to map out the overland and underwater formations that comprise RMI.  These maps can then be used to calculate and visualize potential effects and damage from wave inundation and other coastal hazards.

To help address this need, the Pacific Islands Climate Science Center is collaborating with the USGS Coastal National Elevation Database (CoNED) program to collect topographic and bathymetric data and develop a Digital Elevation Model (a 3D representation of the terrain) for the southern half of Majuro Atoll (home to the capital city and largest population of RMI) that can be used to visualize and project climate change impacts. Data collection and field work will occur in September 2016.





Jeffrey Danielson
Physical Geographer, USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center


Monica Palaseanu-Lovejoy
Research Geographer, USGS Eastern Geographic Science Center
Cindy Thatcher
Research Biologist, Cooperative Data Acquisition, NGPO
Dean B Gesch
Research Scientist, USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center
Matthew Barbee
Biologist, UH Mānoa
Romina King
Asst. Professor of Geography, University of Guam
Maria Kottermair
GIS specialist, University of Guam